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King James and more talking points as Saracens fall short against Clermont
Vunipola’s power, Clermont frailties, the Saracens counter attack and an atmosphere for the ages.

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Geoffrey-Guichard

CLERMONT ADVANCED INTO the final of the Champions Cup with a 13-9 win over Saracens this afternoon.

Read our match report here.

King James of Clermont

Brock James has been one of the most maligned figures in European rugby over recent seasons, repeatedly pointed to as a choker on the big occasion. This performance doesn’t totally render such suggestions untrue, but his composure was telling in Saint-Étienne.

Wesley Fofana and Brock James celebrate Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

After a missed drop goal in the opening minutes, the Australian oozed calm and decisiveness, even when his accuracy was slightly off with a handful of passes and kicks.

There was real quality in many of his technical contributions, however, with some beautiful spiral kicking from hand and that delicate chip kick for Wesley Fofana’s try in the second half. The vision to spot that area of space in behind Saracens was equally impressive.

Three from three off the tee on top of his playmaking, Brock picked up a deserved man-of-the-match award. After Camille Lopez’s slowing form in the second part of this season, the Australian’s display was hugely encouraging for Clermont.

Billy whizz

In a determined Saracens performance, Billy Vunipola showed every ounce of his international class at number eight. Looking in improved physical condition, the England back row was masterful in the art of contact at Stade Geoffrey-Guichard.

Billy Vunipola and Brock James James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

His carrying was consistently effective, while defensively there were some superb low tackles and strong shoulders into the midriff of Clermont attackers. At the breakdown, Vunipola was a constant menace to the French side’s possession as he produced a number of turnovers.

Mark McCall’s men will head home in disappointment, but England coach Stuart Lancaster will have been thrilled to see Vunipola shine in this manner in a World Cup year.

Meanwhile, 21-year-old Maro Itoje showed his ever-growing competence and looks like being a sensational back row forward in the coming years.

Saracens counter but never break

Chief among the Saracens resistance was fullback Alex Goode, who was their most dangerous back by some distance. His positioning in the backfield was exemplary and he repeatedly counter-attacked with verve.

Nick Abendanon and Alex Goode Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Those thrusts when returning Clermont kicks, especially from Ludovic Radoslavjevic’s sometimes poor boxing, were an important platform for Saracens. It was a Goode counter-attack that eventually led to Saracens’ opening three point, while another allowed Charlie Hodgson to have a long-range shot at goal that missed.

Later in the game, Goode got on his dancing shoes to shimmy past three Clermont defenders, but again Sarries couldn’t capitalise. That proved to the the story of the Englishmen’s counter-attack and their general performance.

Lots of impressive aspects, but just not enough to get over the line.

Clermont frailties?

While the Clermont faithful greeted a return to the European final with jubilation, the coaching staff of Frank Azéma and Jono Gibbes might review certain parts of this performance as falling short of their desired standard.

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Clermont fans celebrate James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The set-piece fired powerfully when it most needed to, but there were moments of weaknesses at scrum and lineout too. Saracens also showed that an aggressive defensive linespeed can limit Clermont’s attacking potential.

Leinster or Toulon will review Clermont’s win in search of the possibility of building on those glimmers of frailties.

An unforgettable atmosphere

The atmosphere at Stade Geoffrey-Guichard was like nothing we’ve ever come across in European club rugby before, maybe even international rugby too.

Clermont fans James Crombie / INPHO Clermont's support was sensational. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A French semi-final record crowd of 41,500 packed out the cauldron in Saint-Étienne and it seemed apparent that 40,000 of them at least were Clermont supporters. Indeed picking out a Saracens jersey or flag in the crowd was like attempting to find Wally.

The noise created by ASM’s army was deafeningly impressive, their chants of ‘Montferrand, allez, allez, allez’ and ‘Ici, ici, Montferrand’ almost bursting eardrums at times.

Azéma’s players surely took some strength from the support, though Saracens centre Brad Barritt said his side had been inspired by the noise too. McCall said it was the best atmosphere he has ever experienced and there will be no arguments from those present in Saint-Étienne.

If the Champions Cup was decided on support, Clermont would have been declared the winners before a tackle was even made.

‘It’s a massive job, it’s something that gets a bit understated at times’

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